Guest author Jenni from the blog Mehr als Grünzeug already explained how bees live and why they are so important for us in this article. Today, she shares insights into what is making life difficult for the busy little pollinators and what we can do to help them.
What harms the bees...
The greatest threat to insects in this region and around the world is that of industrial agriculture and the sector’s steadily proliferating monocultures. Monocultures don’t provide the animals with sufficient sources of food, they devastate natural habitats and, as an added surprise, they’re frequently loaded with hazardous pesticides that make no distinction between undesirable species and desirable pollinators. As recently as the beginning of this year, for instance, Minister of Food and Agriculture Julia Klöckner authorized the use of neonicotinoids in sugar beet fields. Neonicotinoids have actually been banned in the EU – in part because, for bees, they represent a potent and lethal neurotoxin.
The true extent of the decline in insect populations isn’t clear-cut enough yet to convey definitive numbers – with some suggesting that roughly 40% of all insects (the class of animals with the greatest biodiversity) are experiencing declining numbers. A third of the species in question face the threat of extinction. This is a truly dramatic development since so many ecosystems are based on insects – if they disappear, countless other species will likewise be at risk.
The honey bee, too, has not fared well – bee mortality has been in the news for years. American beekeepers reported as late as 2017 that 40% of their colonies were dying every year – while their European counterparts posted a colony die-off rate as high as 30% per year. The die-offs are happening primarily due to parasites like the varroa mite and to pesticides and insecticides. On the other hand, interest in beekeeping is on the rise in this country (especially in urban areas) and as a result, Germany has seen a steady increase in honey bee populations since 2009. Yet that mustn’t cause us to lose sight of the underlying problem.
... and how we can help them
Every summer for the past few years I’ve come across droves of dead bumblebees lying on the ground – in the botanical garden, while walking through town – everywhere. Some are creeping along sidewalks, faint and confused. I’d love to be able to nurse every single one of them back to health, but it’s a fool’s errand. There is simply too little food for them – most of the plants they still manage to find now will have withered by the time midsummer hits. Then the animals starve to death.
Image: Mehr als Grünzeug
“I am so old that I still remember seeing meadows brimming with bumblebees, butterflies, and hornets. If you’ve never seen it, you don’t even notice it’s missing. But there is a tremendous sadness inside me,” says neurobiologist and bee researcher Randolf Menzel from the Freie Universität Berlin (1), and while I’ve never seen these insect-filled meadows, I too feel profound sadness. For me, it’s that very peculiar kind of sadness I experience over something I’ve never known – a kind of retroactive loss that feeds on the knowledge that things could be very different (better) today. It is the certainty that in the past, the choices necessary for this better reality were not made.
I believe that, collectively, we’re thinking a lot about the future right now – our own, but also that of our world as a whole. If nothing else, the COVID-19 pandemic has smacked us in the face, so to speak, with the question of how we want to live and whether what we’re doing here is actually a good idea (no). At first, things seemed to indicate that those of us in the global north were experiencing a revival: Organic food was booming, people were discovering neighborhood and international solidarity for themselves, greenhouse emissions inevitably declined, and the natural world around us shifted into focus – in part because we became painfully aware of how much we need those wild, uncultivated havens.
Right now, unfortunately, all signs are back to pointing to a “let’s do this” and “full speed ahead” approach, which has already driven global greenhouse emissions to a higher level than in pre-COVID times. When it comes to news coverage, the issues of climate and biodiversity are struggling to compete with COVID-19, and yet all three are interconnected – and we’re running out of time. It’s logical that “a collapse of the global terrestrial ecosystem and its ecosystem services for humanity will occur in the 21st century” (2) if everything continues as it is, writes Oliver Stengel, professor of sustainable development at Bochum University of Applied Sciences, in his new book, Vom Ende der Landwirtschaft (the end of agriculture). Which is why the author is calling for us to abandon farming as it’s been practiced for the past 12,000 years, and to create more space for untamed nature again.
And he’s not the only one. One group of scientists is advocating that 50% of the world’s land be returned directly to nature – that way, everyone would win (including by the same token, the indigenous communities, whose land was stolen). We would do well to consider this notion, since the solution seems to be one of the few that promise quick and effective wins with respect to both biodiversity and the climate crisis.
Here’s what we can do for the bees
But we can also take some intermediate steps on our way to the great leap. Until we can establish food security for the future by doing things like leveraging new technologies – including vertical farming and in vitro plant cell cultivation – and by cutting out animal products for the most part (or replacing them with lab-created alternatives), which would simultaneously create an incredible amount of open space for renaturation (3), we have to keep moving forward in smaller ways. With less waste and a lot more biodynamic farming, for example, if we happen to run a farm or plant a garden. For most of us, the second option will be the more viable – or at the very least, we can do some experimenting with bee-friendly flowering plants on our balconies.
Image: Mehr als Grünzeug
What we can do as individuals:
- Plant flower strips in fields
- Set up insect hotels in gardens and parks
- Sow bee-friendly plants like sunflowers, artichokes, bluebeard (Caryopteris), lacy phacelia, ivy, clover, Bee’s Friend phacelia, and perennial herbs like rosemary and sage in the garden or on the balcony or windowsill
- Provide nesting opportunities such as hives or a sheltered space on the ground (many species of wild bees nest there)
- Avoid using pesticides and insecticides (there are around rund 30% more bees on organically farmed land than on conventional land)
- Shift to a predominantly animal-free diet – it uses up to 76% less land than an animal-heavy diet (today, roughly half of the Earth’s habitable land is used for agriculture, and agriculture is responsible for at least one-third of the total global greenhouse gas emissions)
- Emphasize organic food, preferably regional and seasonal (whenever feasible)
- Support public initiatives, petitions, and other efforts to protect biodiversity (examples in Germany include Verkehrswende NRW, Rettet die Bienen, and many others) and non-profit organizations (like a bee sponsorship with Mellifera e.V.)
Nonetheless, there’s no getting around the fact that in the long run, we’re going to have to ask ourselves this question: How do we want to live – and most importantly, survive?
For future generations of people and bees alike, the path to thriving doesn’t lead to intensive, pesticide-overloaded agriculture dominated by a handful of corporations. Instead, it calls for a global society that embraces the principles of sufficiency, reduction, recycling, preservation, and renaturation in place of reckless unrestrained growth. It views itself not as a separate entity within an environment, but as an integral part of the world around it. There is no alternative.
Cover image: Mehr als Grünzeug
(1) Cf. Eitner, Kerstin, and Morgenthaler, Katja: Die Biene. Eine Liebeserklärung. Greenpeace Magazin edition: Hamburg 2015. p. 104
(2) Stengel, Oliver: Vom Ende der Landwirtschaft. Wie wir die Menschheit ernähren und die Wildnis zurückkehren lassen. Munich: oekom 2021. p. 72.
(3) Cf. Stengel, Oliver: Vom Ende der Landwirtschaft. Wie wir die Menschheit ernähren und die Wildnis zurückkehren lassen. Munich: oekom 2021.